We all know the infamous technique, the blasphemy to reading honed by those days we wished we had more than twenty-four hours to spare; I call it – the skim. The constant need to stay updated with not only academic readings but also recreational literature has perfected my skimming tendencies in university. Yet, I have always regarded this practice as an active choice, a notion nothing further from the truth.
This summer, I had the privilege of spending a few relaxing days in Northern Italy. I sat down in a straw chair and pulled out Medici: The Family History. The setting for a focused, quality reading session was ensured with ample of time and just the right amount of sun. Instead, I found myself skimming. I skimmed for big concepts, for the concluding sentences, and the summaries of points. My mind blanked out the “decorative” details of Lorenzo’s hat colour or the town he passed on the way to Venice. From that moment came the harsh and cold realization that I was no longer able to “close” read without active reminders. As a Comparative Literature major, this came as the most unexpected slap to the face. I feel as if I had lost my serene space when reading – the hypersensitivity to words, patterns, and their combinations.
Last term, I paid particular attention to my reading patterns only to recognize my mechanical, machine-like behaviour. My eyes roll through the text, identifying keywords of the topic I am learning about. My mind views it as not single words combining to form an idea or thought, but chunk after chunks of texts. Often, I search for the summary or key points of the text, then skim through the full writing piece for a particular sentence or phrase that would bolster the thesis or main argument. My reading capacities now mimics that of the machine – the act of macro-reading, as I call it, rather than “close” reading.
There lies a hidden beauty in macro-analysis (what an oxymoron!) of literature, discovering patterns and trends that we have failed to pinpoint previously. Nonetheless, I argue that this practice has eliminated the human aspect of a very human activity in which we connect a deeper level of our minds to physical and verbal aspects of the world around us. No longer am I able to personalize the text with skimming. It has only become a matter of efficiency and fact-pulling. In this trajectory, reading is simply defined as the transfer of knowledge, not the experience, the private moment of contemplation and reflection.
Franco Moretti, “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History,” New Left Review 24 (2003): 67-93. (Open Access Edition)